Sometimes the world intrudes on my writing. I have problems with intrusive thoughts as it is, but current events often affect what happens in my stories. In this case, I’m not talking about the themes or the outline for the plot. It’s nothing as on the nose as that. (Although I certainly draw from the world’s problems when I create.)
I mean when I’m angry, characters tend to die or get beaten up. I’m writing the sequel to my dark m/m paranormal romance, Carillon’s Curse, right now and my irascible lawman main character, Hadrian, is pretty much punching all of the side characters. I realized today that I have three scenes where he’s punching people.
I’ll have to cut some of this when I do the initial edit. It’s repetitious. I know why I’m doing it, though. He’s a tough guy, and I’m using him as my righteous instrument to release my anger and frustration.
Meanwhile, Thomas isn’t doing well. He’s my sensitive main character in this book. I think of him as the soul of it. He, I guess, is representing my pain. Hadrian is defending him. It’s how I’m feeling right now. Guarded. An artichoke. The thorny outer layer protecting the soft core.
Writing is a strange thing. A blessing and a curse. It eases my anxiety and vexes me at the same time. It’s a balm, yet it creates its own wounds. On the artichoke days, however, it’s the thing that keeps me going and saves me from punching people. I have Hadrian for that.
I had a funny interaction with a fantasy writer today who said that his characters don’t do a lot of normal, day to day things on the page. I don’t do that, either, unless I think it might be interesting. I write M/M romance now, so, unless my characters are going to do something interesting in the shower, they never take showers. They don’t bathe, brush their teeth, comb their hair, or trim their toenails. They are a bunch of unkempt, reeking men with failing organs because they never use the bathroom or fart. Flies swirl around them and no one can get near them without gagging.
Erm. No. They do all of their grooming and pooping off page. Actually, since it’s romance, they are ethereal beings who simply don’t poop. They’re like the angels. Unless angels poop. Do angels poop?
Thomas, oh, yes—that Thomas—Mr. Carillon, my troublesome medium—peed in the woods once. He also vomits when he imbibes too much absinthe. Frank Hope vomited a few times. I was pretty tough on poor Frank. Let’s face it, he had it coming, nasty Necromancer. I don’t know if those things upset any of my readers since no one has ever mentioned it—yet. Someday, someone will and I’ll regret upsetting them. Whatever anyone might think, I don’t enjoy upsetting my readers. That’s for writers like G.R.R.M. I’m an idealist. I love a happy ending.
In other genres, like fantasy or sci-fi, it seems like the way to add some grit is to make your characters do a few things (like poop). A few mundane touches can add a bit of realism that gives the fantastic elements authenticity. We believe them more because they occur in a world that shares enough in common with ours that the other stuff seems real, too.
It doesn’t have to be that way, of course, fantasy and sci-fi characters can be as pristine as my romance men. I’ve written fantasy stories where people were immaculate. I have to confess, however, I loved writing a story where I made the lead character, a mage, get a bad case of the runs. I never described anything about the actual sickness, just the fact that he was slowing down his prince’s band of warriors. The warriors kept having to take turns to stay behind with him, and no one really wanted to. It was a bit of comic relief in a story that leaned toward somber. It also allowed one of the warriors to have mercy on the lad and take him under his wing. They built a brotherly relationship that impacted the overall arc of the story.
In any case, the amount of reality one allows in a story depends heavily on why it’s there. If it doesn’t move the story forward, add something to the flavor of the story, or build characterization, it can probably just be skipped. Not everything needs to happen on the page. In the case of my romantic leads, some of it doesn’t need to happen at all.
I enjoy giving my characters gifts to help them through the story. I don’t mean wings or magical abilities—although sometimes I give them those, too. I’m talking about in terms of backstory and friends. Other writers probably do this; they simply might not recognize it as a gift they give to their characters.
My mother died recently. She was an abusive narcissist, and our relationship was complicated. I suppose because of this, it comes naturally to me to write characters with abusive parents or guardians.
I consciously chose not to do that with Thomas Carillon of Carillon’s Curse, my Western gothic paranormal romance, and the sequel to it I’m writing. I had already made Thomas’s life difficult. I gave him clubfoot in the 1800s, when it wasn’t easily—or successfully treated, a sensitive nature, and the sometimes troublesome ability to talk to ghosts. He’s also gay at a time when this could have landed him in prison in Texas and could have possibly resulted in his death
How awful would it be to give him bad parents on top of all of that?
Thomas is a sweet character, and I love him. I gave him a gift I never had—two kind, loving parents who wanted only the best for him. I gave him wealth and privilege. I gave him, as an adult, a staff of servants who cared about him and Gracie, a cat who senses ghosts. (They didn’t have emotional support animals in the 19th century, but that’s basically what she is.)
In Lover, Destroyer, my m/m fantasy romance, I cursed Kite with a terrible, destructive power that separated him from other mages and made people fear him. When the book opens, he’s a child who has destroyed an entire city at the emperor’s behest. Nothing is left behind, not even a baby’s shoe. An army of mages takes him back to the emperor—all of them fear, even despise, the boy in their care. Kite is a sad, scared, lonely little boy.
So, I gave him a gift. Cinder from my only m/f fantasy romance, The Inquisitor’s Gift. It’s the same universe, the same land. Cinder, at this time, is about to become a teacher at a prestigious magic school in the capitol. He’s good-hearted and fearless with a silly sense of humor. He takes Kite under his wing, and does what he can to help him through a frightening period.
This doesn’t mean that Kite grows up to be a healthy adult. He’s twisted and dark. Sadistic. Mercurial. A secretive, haunted man who thinks love isn’t meant for him.
Although I enjoy plunging characters into the depths of despair, I always like to give them special things that I wish I’d had when I felt alone or desperate. For me, it’s one of the joys of writing.
I love when a character tells me something new about him. When I’m constructing a main character, I make notes about his physical features, emotional make-up, his past, his great “wound” or “ghost,” KM Weiland’s “Lie,” and various other things about his life and surroundings.
But I don’t know everything. I never know everything. Once I’m done with all of that construction, the character comes alive. He’s no longer completely under my control then. He’ll often surprise me in the middle of a scene that I painstakingly outlined, tossing his lines to the floor and ad libbing. Characters are horrible things sometimes. Maybe it’s because I don’t pay them. I can’t fire them, either. I suppose I could delete them, but that would be very rude.
I’m busy writing the sequel to Carillon’s Curse. In 1889, Thomas, a medium, and Marshal Hadrian are investigating a murder in Corpus Christi, Texas. They are about to talk to Father Bardales, the priest of a small Catholic church with a mostly Hispanic congregation. As Hadrian and Thomas enter the castle-like building of rustic, blonde stones, Thomas whispers to me, “I was raised Catholic. This is quite bittersweet for me. It reminds me of my parents. You know how much I loved my parents.”
“No. You’re an atheist. I already said so in the last book, Thomas. Don’t be difficult.”
“That boarding school you said I went to? It was a Catholic boarding school. I’m a lapsed Catholic.”
“I don’t think they say ‘lapsed Catholic’ in your time.”
“We’re talking in your time. I’m attempting to communicate with you. One would think you would be more gracious.”
“If that’s the backstory you want, then fine.”
He coughs, affronted. “It’s not the backstory I want. It’s what happened.”
Hadrian chimes in. “Why are you picking on Thomas?”
“He’s adding to his backstory without consulting me. He says he was raised Catholic. And I’m not ‘picking on’ him.”
“Oh,” says Hadrian, turning to Thomas. “I like that.”
Thomas beams. “Yes, it adds another layer to this scene. We’re here simply to see if Father Bardales knows Eduardo’s last name, but being in the church—the soft glow of the stained glass, the odor of waxed wood—it will make me feel sentimental. It will be yet another thing in this story that reminds me of my parents and that loss.”
“Is this scene in your POV?” asks Hadrian, tipping back his Stetson. “It should be. It’ll be more sentimental if it’s from your POV.”
“This was supposed to be from Hadrian’s POV,” I tell them.
“Given my backstory, it would be much more poignant from my POV,” says Thomas. “It will take a rather flat and boring police procedural sort of scene (why was that there in the first place—this is a romance!) and makes it more personal and emotional.”
“Firstly,” I say, “this is a dark paranormal romance with a murder mystery thrown in, and we need scenes where you actually investigate the murder. Don’t roll your eyes, Thomas. And stop it with the side-eye, Hadrian. Secondly, yeah, okay. We’ll do it from Thomas’s POV and let him be all emotional.”
Thomas sniffs. “I’m sensitive, and I have a touching backstory.”
“That’s right,” says Hadrian, crossing his arms over his chest. “Thomas is sensitive, and I’m rough. That’s why we compliment each other. So, he’s going to go in there and be all sentimental, and I’m going to be brooding. Then I’m going to lose my temper!”
“No!” Thomas and I say in unison.
“Father Bardales is proud but kind. You’re going to be respectful. He will have some news for you that will be critical to your investigation. It’s the First Plot Point. So, I need you two to listen to me and not screw this up.”
Hadrian huffs and transfers his hands to his hips. Thomas tilts his pretty head to one side as he stares at me. I set his ever-present, ghost-sensing cat, Gracie, on his shoulder. “You can trust us,” Thomas says with classic Thomas gentleness.
And I do. Most of the time, the characters are right. Part of writing is listening to them. The rest, really, is fighting to represent what they’ve told me in a way other people can understand.
There are many phases to writing and publishing a book. I’m in my least favorite phase. The part right before the book releases. I’m trying to use this time to work on my next project, but it’s difficult. I feel sick and excited and scared all at once. I’m too emotional to get lost in the new story.
I never look for huge market success. I’m not Stephen King. I don’t sell millions of books and make fat wads of cash. What I live on are reviews. Every good review means I did my job—I connected with a reader. Every negative review makes me die inside.
I’m supposed to have a thick skin by now. I’ve been at this for a few years. I shouldn’t be bothered by negative reviews. One author friend advises against even reading them.
But the whole reason I write is to communicate with people. I’m shy. I don’t see many people. Being asthmatic and at high risk during the pandemic, I see even fewer of them these days. I talk to people through characters and stories. I hope they have a good time, that they were lifted from their normal day for a while. My only window into that are reader reviews.
It’s not simply fear of negative reviews that makes this time difficult, for something awful happens at this time with the characters. They leave me. Thomas and Hadrian have been my friends for months. Thomas, especially, has held my hand through some terrible things that happened while I was writing it.
Now, because the book is going to be published soon, he’s gone. I’m not sure why this happens, but I like to imagine it’s because they’re getting ready to visit the readers. It’s not exactly that they’re abandoning me, it’s just that they have other places to go.
I’m toying with the idea of writing another book with them, so they will have to visit me again at some point, but for now, they’re getting ready for a big adventure. I hate it. I’m afraid for them. I’m worried they’re headed into a bloodbath, and I exposed them to it. True, they had some harrowing adventures in this story, but I controlled everything. I was the monster pulling the strings. Now, anything could happen. I can’t protect them. I can’t even feel them.
So, if you see Hadrian and Thomas, tell them I miss them.
Raise your hand if you’re a writer who wants to smell like your characters! Or a reader who enjoys imagining what characters smell like.
This might not always be a good idea. I’m not sure I would want to smell like an orc or something with tentacles. I’m sure Frank Hope, the protagonist from my Love Songs for Lost Worlds trilogy sometimes smelled like BO and/or vomit. I kind of put Frank through the wringer. Poor guy. He was, however, the villain of the first book, so he kind of deserved some payback.
In the novel I’m currently writing, Carillon’s Curse, my Victorian gentleman (who happens to be a medium), Thomas, washes with lavender soap and wears violet water. I know what lavender smells like. My husband and I have used Jason’s Lavender Body Wash for years. (We had a cat who really loved it. He would be all over us whenever we were freshly showered.) But I had no idea what violet water smelled like. I have never even smelled a violet, let alone violet water.
The first time I ever heard of violet water was in Paul’s Case by Willa Cather. When I was researching Victorian colognes, I ran across an article that said respectable Victorian gentlemen could wear violet water. Since another popular scent, ambergris, is basically whale diarrhea, I decided Thomas would wear violet water.
I wanted, nay—needed—to smell it, so I found a shop on Etsy that creates and sells all natural cosmetics based on historical compounds, LBCC Historical Apothecary. You can find them at http://www.littlebits.etsy.com. I highly recommend trying their products. I bought some violet water, hair pomade, and lip balm and love all of it.
Violet water has a light floral scent, but I found it surprisingly gender neutral. I bought it simply to smell Thomas, but I’m going to wear it myself. It’s perfect for transitioning and suitable for a man.
Hadrian, my co-protagonist, smells primarily of leather and horse sweat. I had horses in my youth, and miss them, so I don’t need to buy anything to see what he smells like. All I have to do is remember. (Horses, in case you don’t know, smell wonderful!)
So, those are the sexy scents of my sexy men. What about you, writers? What scents define your characters?
Don’t forget to look for Carillon’s Curse, coming to Amazon in December 2021!
So many sad, disturbing things are happening in the real world right now, so, of course, I have to go inside my imaginary writer’s world and make things weird there, too. I’m writing a paranormal romance novel set in 1888 in the Old West of the U.S. Today, because I’m living through such “interesting” times, I started thinking about what things would happen in the lives of my main characters.
In 1888, they’re in their early twenties. They’re Civil War babies. In some ways, they have just escaped it, but its effects and racism still loom over them in 1888. Thomas will be forty-nine when the Great War breaks out. U.S. servicemen in World War I ranged in age from eighteen to sixty. I don’t think Thomas would have been eligible to serve, since he is disabled, but Hadrian is fit and a police officer. I’m sure he would have been conscripted. He probably would even volunteer. What sort of adventures would he have? Would he make it home to Thomas?
And what would Thomas do while his lover is abroad, fighting on foreign soil? I’m sure he would do most of his typical Thomasy things. Talking to restless spirits. Going around town in his invalid carriage with his cat. Cars would be in fashion, so he would probably have a car by then. Would he drive it himself? The idea of my rather uptight Thomas driving a car makes me smile.
Thomas would be fifty-three in 1918, when the Spanish Flu pandemic hits. If Hadrian survived the Great War, what sort of condition would he be in? Would he survive the pandemic? What about sweet Thomas? He’s already in poor health. With his asthma, I’m not even sure how he made it to twenty-three. What would the pandemic be like for him? Would he make it? Would he hole up in his mansion with Hadrian? There was no Amazon, then. How would they get things they needed?
What will they think of World War II? They’ll be in their seventies then. It must seem terrible to see such a thing having lived through World War I. How cataclysmic it must seem. How frightening. They would have survived so much, but time keeps whirling by, a plow through hard earth throwing up weeds and dirt.
They’ll be long dead before they’re ever able to legally marry in the U.S. Would they even be buried together?
It’s not like I’m even planning a series or anything with these two. It’s simply that some weird part of me worries about them and almost needs to write more stories about them just to make sure they’re okay.
This is the kind of thing I don’t think many readers understand about writers. Our characters are real people to us. They live and breathe. We have coffee and tea with them. We worry about them going out into the wide world like a mother kissing her kindergartener goodbye on the first day of school.
We give them to you as an act of love, because they have been our friends on whatever journey we have taken, and we hope they will be yours.
Sometimes writers feel like gods. At the moment, I feel like a fiend. My favorite character this time is Thomas, a shy gentleman who happens to see ghosts. He’s also a virgin when the story begins.
Plots are like roller coasters. With each scene I’ve been writing, I’m ramping up to a pivotal scene (the Midpoint) that will plunge my characters into a huge, stomach-flipping dip. It’s going to devastate Thomas. In the mean time, I’m watching him grow more in love, watching him venture farther out of his comfort zone and into a bigger, wider world than he has dared to imagine.
And I’m there, barely discernible in the shadows, whispering lines into his ear, telling him things that aren’t quite true. He’s such a gentle, good character. He has no idea I’m fattening him up for the kill.
It’s not, of course, an actual death—and I’ve already hurt him quite a bit—but this scene is going to wound him deeply. I’m not looking forward to it. I’m actually writing this blog to avoid it just a little longer. Unlike some writers, I don’t relish hurting characters—especially characters I love. And I love Thomas to bits. I hope readers love him at least half as much as I do.
I guess it’s time to slink away and break poor Thomas’s sweet heart. What’s worse, perhaps, is I give him the terrible advice afterward. Like some cruel, sabotaging friend, I’ll turn him in the wrong direction and give him a push. I feel sickened just thinking about it.
But I’m doing it because it wouldn’t be much of a story if everything was perfect. ( I suppose there are stories like that, but I don’t care for them.) If you, like me, enjoy riding an emotional roller coaster, check out some of my gay romances! None of my HEAs come easily.
When I write, I’ve noticed I’m often sifting through my baggage. Writing is fun, it’s my vocation, and it’s also therapy. I usually don’t realize how a work symbolizes some part of my life, either something I’m working on or something I need to work on, until I’m already into it. This time, I’m about midway through my current story, Carillon’s Curse, and starting to tease out its theme. (I start out with some vague idea of a novel’s theme, then zero in on it as I write.)
I’m still piecing it together, but a component of it slapped me right upside the head.
I’ve always been a people pleaser. I gush over strangers, have few boundaries, and put the wants of others ahead of my own. I shrink in unfamiliar—and sometimes in familiar environments—trying to take up as little room as possible. A friend once said, “Do you realize how many times you say you’re sorry? Why are you so sorry?”
Basically, I’m sorry I’m alive. I’m sorry for the space I take up on this planet. I think this stems from growing up with a physically and emotionally abusive parent. I always thought if I was good—if I could be oh, so very, very good—I wouldn’t be hurt. I guess I also internalized her anger and resentment toward me.
Three months ago I started transitioning from female to male. After saying I was genderqueer for a long time, I finally realized that I had been saying that because I didn’t think transitioning was a real option. The pandemic hit, and my shell cracked wide open. To my surprise, my husband was fully supportive. We’re closer now than ever before. (And we were pretty obnoxiously close before.)
I don’t know if it’s the testosterone, the pandemic, or my age, but I free and alive and valid. I’m not putting up with crap anymore. I’m not going back to that person who has to smile even when I’m feeling shitty. I don’t need to go out of my way to make everyone comfortable. I’m not sorry for being here. For the first time, when I celebrated Pride Month, I felt truly proud. I actually, maybe for the first time ever, really like myself.
Okay, so what does this have to do with a gay Western paranormal romance? Both of the main characters, in different ways and for different reasons, feel flawed and unworthy of love. These two good men, tied to their pasts and unable to attain true happiness, are chasing a serial killer who thinks he’s freaking awesome. This guy believes he’s helping his victims and society. He’s a narcissistic creep who, in his arrogance, is sure he has all of the answers.
My job, as the writer of this story, is to send these two good guys down the paths they need to stop this killer and find the love of their lives. Sometimes writers feel like gods. So often, as with this book, I feel more like a shepherd, guiding my heroes to a happily ever after.
Who knew shepherds sometimes learned from their lambs?
Today, I saw a post in a writing group in which someone was stuck on whether his MC (main character) would move onto a new relationship following the disappearance and possible death of her lover. Obviously, one should consider the depth of the relationship in question, but why not look to the character to solve this problem? If you have a well-developed character who seems like a real person to you, problems like this aren’t problems at all.
For instance, take veterinarian Dr. Garland Sands from my latest M/M historical romance, A Little Sin. After his lover commits suicide, he is able to move on and find love again. However, if his lover had vanished, I don’t believe he would ever stop looking for him. He’s an idealist and an optimist. He’s a hopeful character. Not only would he be unable to give up hope of finding his lover again, he would probably go to the ends of the Earth searching for him.
A very different character in my epic fantasy novel, Under the Shadow, Mylinka, is separated from her childhood love. Although he has only disappeared, evidence suggests he was killed in a purging of mages. Mylinka is a pessimist. She’s a war orphan with some nightmarish experiences. It’s easy for her to believe the worst. She’s also a highly adaptable pragmatist, so she moves on to other relationships.
So you can see how two very different characters will react to the same circumstances in extremely different ways. If you’re stuck on whether or not a character would do something, just ask the character. If your character won’t talk, maybe you need to develop him more.
How? Fill out some character worksheets. There are tons out there! My favorite character questionnaire is in Will Dunne’s The Dramatic Writer’s Companion. It asks questions like ‘what is your character’s greatest achievement so far? What is his greatest failure?’ Rather than spending a lot of time on your character’s hairstyle, it delves deep into the character’s interior life. It’s my favorite writing book despite the fact that I don’t write screenplays. Another fun way to learn more about your characters is to take online personality tests as if you were them.
Once you’re really in touch with your characters, you won’t need to ask how they’ll act. You’ll just know. And if you’re still not sure, just ask them. I often have trouble getting mine to shut up. I’m trying to write a paranormal romance, and Garland from A Little Sin and Ward from Zen Alpha keep bugging me. They want me to write more about them. That’s the only drawback to creating characters that become real people—they don’t always do what you want.